In the culture war over the New Baseball, what can we learn from New Coke?

first_imgA day earlier, Verlander told reporters that the preponderance of home runs had turned baseball into a “joke.” The current rate of 1.37 home runs per game would be an all-time record over a full season. Verlander believed “100 percent” that the league was intentionally tweaking the composition of the baseballs to allow for more home runs.It’s telling that Fox and Major League Baseball chose an in-game interview to address this issue in the most direct manner possible. Consider that a 30-second commercial during the All-Star Game has been variably reported to cost between $500,000 and $590,000. Someone with power believed Verlander’s supplicant take on the home-run spike – MLB is “trying to do the same thing we are, they’re saying,” he said, “if that’s the case then we can all figure this thing out” – was a valuable message to disseminate. It is certainly no coincidence that this came after Verlander was reportedly “chewed out” by two MLB executives, Joe Torre and Jim Leyland, following his conspiracy theory comments. MLB cares how we talk about home runs, now and 34 years from now. It wants to get its side of the story out quickly, lest New Baseball stumble into the same trap as New Coke.“You know, the biggest flaw in that logic is that baseball somehow wants more home runs,” Manfred told reporters Tuesday. “If you sat in an owner’s meeting and listened to people talk about the way our game’s being played, that is not the sentiment among the owners for whom I work. There is no desire on the part of ownership to increase the number of home runs in the game. To the contrary, they’re concerned about how many we have.”Verlander’s skepticism comes from a good place. We’ve seen this play before.This week, commissioner emeritus Bud Selig released a memoir, co-authored with journalist Phil Rogers, titled “FOR THE GOOD OF THE GAME: The Inside Story of the Surprising and Dramatic Transformation of Major League Baseball.” Selig describes watching Barry Bonds’ pursuit of Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record with none of the public-facing ceremony and pageantry we saw in the summer of 2007. Selig called it an “unpleasant” experience. He considered his presence at every Giants game perfunctory. Because he “didn’t want to be conspicuous by my absence,” Selig wrote, he found himself “hopscotching around the country to be in attendance when the self-absorbed slugger hit the record homer.” How Dodgers pitcher Ross Stripling topped the baseball podcast empire Sometimes, commissioners do things because they have to. They make the necessary proclamations while trying not to say the quiet part out loud. The quiet part about home runs today is that it took a literal astrophysicist to determine all the physical factors that might be affecting the soaring baseballs. The physics Manfred has publicly asserted, to this point in the conversation, draws from an MLB-commissioned study of 2017 baseballs. Today’s baseballs are different. In the meantime, the league has purchased Rawlings, which manufactures the baseballs at its plant in Costa Rica, and pledged more stringent oversight of the manufacturing process. Time is MLB’s biggest obstacle to conducting a thorough study of the new baseballs. And time can be vital.Related Articles The conversation about home runs in 1998 focused on Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa’s pursuit of Roger Maris’ single-season record. At the time, their heroics boosted the popularity of a sport still reeling from the 1994 strike and the cancellation of that year’s World Series. By 2007 the conversation was different. “By then we knew what was going on,” Selig wrote. “This was an age when sluggers found extra power through chemistry, and, of course, Barry was one of the leading men in baseball’s steroids narrative. There is plenty of blame to spread around in this sad chapter, and I’ll accept my share of the responsibility.” In nine short years, hitting a home run had morphed from a cherished accomplishment to a scarlet letter of suspicion. McGwire, Sosa and Bonds have yet to be inducted to the Baseball Hall of Fame.Decades from now, what will the conversation about home runs in the late 2010s sound like? The Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger and the Brewers’ Christian Yelich each have a fighting chance of hitting 60 home runs, something no one has done since 2001 – the heart of the “steroid era.” We know now that’s partially a function of physics. Whether that’s good or bad might be a matter of taste, which can always change.Selig notes in his memoir that implementing MLB’s drug testing program required collective bargaining with the MLB Players’ Association. To a degree, it even required Congressional intervention – an unusually large stage for a culture war over home runs. This time, the conversation around homers will be different. Some players, like Verlander, might want to rein in the lack of air resistance around the baseball. Perhaps the majority of owners do too, as Manfred said. But if the culture war around New Coke holds any lesson for Baseball (and the baseball) in 2019, it’s that the majority doesn’t always rule. The latest season of the Netflix series “Stranger Things” transports us to the year 1985. In one episode, two characters debate the merits of New Coke. The controversy swirling around the soft drink, which was discontinued in 2002, is unfamiliar enough to 2019 audiences that it deserves refreshment. For the teenage characters, their debate centered around taste. For older generations of the time, something greater was at stake: tradition. The Coca-Cola Company was incorporated in Georgia in 1892. Any change to its signature product was sure to touch a nerve in America at large, and the South in particular.Sure enough, despite empirical taste tests demonstrating a broader preference for the New Coke, fans of the Old Coke complained to an eager press. They wanted their soft drink back. Moreover, they wanted to champion this particular soft drink as a token of a culture war. Let Pepsi be the “choice of a new generation” – Coca-Cola’s old formula was the drink of their generation, taste tests be damned. So it was that the Old Coke quickly returned and New Coke was quietly phased out. A corporation thought it had built a better mousetrap, stumbled into a culture war spearheaded by a vocal minority, and quietly retreated from the battle lines. Stranger things have happened.This is the story we tell about New Coke now, 34 years after it entered our lives. Baseball’s signature product, the home run, is in the midst of a similar conversation in 2019. It’s a cultural conversation, yes, but also some very specific, smaller conversations in which powerful people are questioning how we like our home runs.In the second inning of the All-Star Game on Tuesday night, Fox Sports split the screen on its television broadcast. The game played out on the left side. On the right, we saw a dugout interview between reporter Ken Rosenthal and pitcher Justin Verlander. “The commissioner today said that MLB has not ordered the balls to be altered, and the owners do not want more home runs,” Rosenthal told Verlander. The pitcher chuckled. 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